Friday, 13 June 2014

Supplier payments and the missing £8.4 million - good job they have armchair auditors in Barnet

On 27th May Barnet Council published their supplier payments for April, a few days before the deadline. Now you have to know your way around the Council website to find these payments but I always schedule in time at the end of every month to review them. Initially I was a bit wary as the file size was enormous 56MB when it is typically around 100 KB. Downloading the file caused my computer to go into a flat spin but eventually I opened the file only to find a rather modest £22.489 million of payments significantly less than I would have expected.

I immediately emailed the council on the 27th May to ask them what the problem was, why was the file size so immense and where were the missing payments.

On 30 May this was the response I received.

Thanks for the query – I’ve set out the explanation below.

The guidance from the DCLG advises that we should be disclosing payments made by the authority during the period greater than £500. Up until March 2014 the Council had been disclosing all payments and their various posting details (directorate, service area etc.) where the payment was made during the period and the individual posting line was greater than £500. This was slightly different in approach to the guidance provided by the DCLG which refers to invoices over £500 rather than ledger postings over £500.

For example, in the April 2014 disclosure we have disclosed three invoices paid to Comensura Limited for the net amount of £788,192.47 (£354,22.65, £219,437.08 and £214,442.74). During the period we have only paid three invoices to Comensura Limited, each of which has been coded in the Council’s general ledger accounts over multiple codes. Some of these individuals lines will be less than £500 and some over. Previously the Council hasn’t disclosed the total invoice value paid, however the individual lines within the invoice greater than £500. This isn’t in line with the guidance and explains the variance in the number of lines on the April disclosure, rather than the fact that we have missed some invoices. Those marked with various are therefore where the invoices have been charged to more than general ledger account.
Comensura is probably the most significant example, but there are a number of others, care providers predominantly.

If it would help, I am happy to ask a colleague to send you the general ledger account breakdown for the invoices marked with ‘various’ and we shall look at including this in future periods either within the disclosure or as a separate attachment. At the same time I shall ask for a colleague to see if there is a reason why the file size is so different.

Now it is a good job I am not easily fobbed off because I knew that irrespective of the consolidation of suppliers payments into a few larger invoices there were still a significant number of payments missing so again I immediately emailed back the following:

Thank you for your response. I think you are saying that rather than listing individual entries you are only listing actual invoices paid which may cover a number of entries and that means there are fewer payments listed. I could accept that if there weren’t a large number of companies missing who you typically pay every single month without fail. For example starting at the beginning: Affinity Water are consistently paid every month. In April no payment. Same for Agudas Israel Housing Association Ltd; Anchor Foster Care Services Ltd; Barnet Lighting Services; Baytree Community Care; Blue 9 Security; Brent Couriers; NSL; the list goes on and on. I am sorry but I simply do not believe this suppliers list. The fact that the total payments in April is only £22.5 million when I would typically expect it to be at least £31-32 million (the average for 2013/14 was £39.4 million but it did have all those advance payments to Capita) and in April 2013 was £31.3 million suggests that a large number of invoices have been omitted.

I therefore would ask to look into this again and to send me a full and complete list of payments next time.  I also look forward to understanding why it is such a huge file size.

And then I waited until the 4th June and having found the person dealing with it was now on holiday I chased someone more senior. A couple of days later I got a response acknowledging that there was a problem and that they would let me know when the problem was sorted. That was a week ago. Today I checked again and saw that the file was now showing as being much smaller (only 99KB). However clicking on the link it downloaded the massive old file crashing my computer again. Eventually at 4pm I checked again and this time it downloaded the new file.

So what are the differences? The original file had payments of £22.5 million. The new file has payments with a value of £30.9 million from an additional 514 invoices including all the missing names I had mentioned plus two invoices from Capita Business Services Ltd for a total of £248,203.82

So what you may say? Well the issue is the supplier payments are suppose to help with transparency and are a requirement of central government. If I had simply accepted the payments on the face of it there would be a massive gap of £8.5 million in just one month. Also if I had been prepared to be fobbed off with a supposedly informed response from a senior officer those payments would still be missing. But here is the cruncher - who prepares these figures - Is it CAPITA? I think it is since they took over the finance function last September.

Where were the quality assurance checks, where was the attention to detail and why wasn't it picked up when I first challenged it. It seems to me that the only people holding the council to account are the few engaged citizen who get paid absolutely nothing unlike Capita and the senior officers who get paid a fortune.

I am logging this as yet another Capita contract failure.

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